prevalence of edutainment and infotainment in museum exhibitions (Preziosi, 2006), with design as ‘interface’ or the mediation of interaction, can be considered as an extra layer of complexity to the already complex system of representation in museal world. The designed features, such as push buttons, enable the audiences with a participatory and affective experience (Henning, 2007). Although the use of design components in the form of physical/computer interactives and multimedia applications (sound, video, and projection) helps achieve educational and entertaining purposes, it also provides a predetermined discourse for the subject matter. Each design component/technique – appropriated by the exhibition creators (curatorial staff and designers) to represent – is not ‘a neutral medium through which, transparently, a message passes unaltered from sender to receiver. It is itself a participant in the creation of meaning’ (Brett, 1996, p. 61). These various technologies of representation thus have a formative power over the presented content (Brett, 1996). They can influence the accuracy of information and/or the conveyance of interpretation, and therefore impact the audiences’ interpretation. Consequently, the communication with the aid of design can become overly contrived. This paper addresses both the complexity of issues and phenomena in design as well as the complex approaches developed in their response. The complexity in museum exhibition design, on one hand, is a result of the subjective nature of the contents on display and the potential for multiple layers of interpretations. On the other hand, a different level of complexity arises from the semiotic process of exhibition design – an interdisciplinary, intricate approach developed to showcase/communicate the complicated subject matter in an engaging and democratic fashion. To help set framework for this paper, it is important to clarify the terms and conditions of the three key elements of the research site: museum exhibition, culture, and design. One way of looking at how these three are related is to refer to Donald Preziosi’s (1998) chapter in his book The Art of Art History, in which he states ‘Museum, in short, established exemplary models for ‘reading’ objects as traces, representations, reflections, or surrogates of individuals, groups, nations, and races and of their ‘histories’’ (p. 509). The term museum exhibition used in this essay is considered as communicative means to convey interpretations of culture (message) through various techniques of presenting objects and other contents. The use of the term culture is kept to a general sense of the aspects of people, ethnicity, countries and societies and of their histories. As for the term design, it implies a means of construction that helps materialize the interpretation in the form of representation, what Preziosi refers to as the ‘exemplary models for reading’. However, the term design goes beyond its physical attributes in museum exhibitions; it also implies communication. According to Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary (2003), the etymology of the word design shows its original meaning as ‘to outline, to indicate, or to mean’. Furthermore, Preziosi (1998) describes an exhibition as a ‘practice of composition and narration creating a reality through prefabricated materials and vocabularies…’ (p. 512). From this notion two components involved in any museum exhibition can be derived, one being design and the other being narrative. Design, as a medium to construct and/or communicate, involving arrangement and careful organization of things to stand for something larger, implies an act of interpretation. The narrative or storyline, as a means to deliver the subject matter, creates coherence for the interpretation of various fragmentary contents (Ernst, 2000; Geertz, 1973). To examine the complexity in museum exhibition design, this paper takes into consideration two main types of exhibition: narrative and object oriented. The two types employ their artefacts differently. Narrative-oriented exhibitions focus on telling stories using the objects to corroborate the representation/interpretation; object-oriented exhibitions depend more on the collections of objects to be the highlight and therefore tell their own stories (Edson & Dean, 1996). The function of design in museum exhibitions has expanded beyond a technique of rendering truth and cultural differences in ‘objective’ form (Mitchell, 2004). This is because ‘we inhabit a world where virtually anything can be contained in a museum, and where virtually anything can convincingly (or not) serve as a museum’ (Preziosi, 2006, p. 69). It entails materializing the curatorial interpretation, enlivening the audience experience, and promoting learning in the museum for diverse audiences. Design thus plays a direct, if not largely influential, role in communicating the message within the exhibitionary system of cultural signification.
Designin the system of representation and its limitations Design, as a constructive/communicative means, participates in how a representative model (whether three dimensional, graphic, or virtual) conveys meaning. To understand the role of design in the system of representation, this paper reviews semiotic theories and their models. This is to regard museum exhibitions as designed products or vehicles to convey meaning – the exhibition message. This paper proposes two ways of looking at the relationship between museum exhibitions and their meaning/message on culture. One is through Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory of sign and its signification. According to de Saussure (as cited in Potts, 2003), the operation of signs consists of two elements: what is being signified (a nonmaterial meaning) and its signifier (a physical entity). With de Saussure’s schema, the exhibition becomes the signifier pointing to culture, the signified. Although the role of design is not explicit, it is presumable that design is the means through which the exhibition creators use during the complex mediation process – the articulation. Design thus allows for and facilitates this binary operation. Figure 1: de Saussure’s model of sign Another way of looking at how signs operate is through a more realist approach by an American philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce’s model introduces a third element – interpretant. Peirce’s (as cited in Potts, 2003) theory suggests that the sign as material entity points to its object (tangible or not) via an interpretant. Using Peirce’s model, the exhibition becomes a sign that points to its object, meaning/message on culture, through an act of interpretation. The act of interpretation, explicitly factored in, is critical to how signs operate considering how a work would have no meaning without an interpretant. However, there is an issue of ‘unlimited semiosis’ where the interpretant (the reference point) changes and so does the meaning. For example, museum visitors can also be considered as the interpretant instead of the exhibition creators. As for this paper, it considers the exhibition creators/designers as the maininterpretants during the exhibition development stage; they are the ones who make choices on both the interpretation of culture as well as its representation. Figure 2: Peirce’s model of sign In reviewing these two theoretical models, it becomes apparent that ‘there’s no such thing as direct, unmediated correlations between signs and meaning, and that interpretation and slippage is therefore always present’ (B. Foss, personal communication, February 2, 2010). Design, whether explicitly accounted for or not, contributes to this potential slippage on two levels. First, design components/techniques as a means to construct employ non-neutral mediums to represent. Second, the designed representation as a means to communicate is subjected to the creators/designers’ discretion. Museum exhibitions as highly mediated vehicles thus alter historical/cultural truths. Timothy Mitchell’s (2004) analysis on the certainty of representation through the case of the Exposition Universelle shows that there are limitations to the concept and techniques of representation. According to Mitchell, there are three aspects to the system of representation which also serve as its limitations: 1) The apparent realism of the representation – how the model